Fiction Refracts Science: Modernist Writers from Proust to Borges

Fiction Refracts Science: Modernist Writers from Proust to Borges

Fiction Refracts Science: Modernist Writers from Proust to Borges

Fiction Refracts Science: Modernist Writers from Proust to Borges

Synopsis

In Fiction Refracts Science, Allen Thiher demonstrates that major modernists, in their concern with the sciences, were strongly influenced by them. He argues that there are direct relations between science and the formal shape of fiction developed by some of the most important modernists. Especially relevant for his arguments are modern cosmology and quantum mechanics, as well as examples from mathematics, biology, and medicine. Thiher begins his study by examining the question about the two cultures-scientific and humanistic-that is often invoked in discussions of their relationship. He outlines the essential context for understanding how science was perceived by modernist novelists. This background included Pascalian and Newtonian cosmology, Darwinism, and the questions of epistemology ushered in by relativity theory and quantum mechanics. He then devotes a chapter each to Musil, Proust, Kafka, and Joyce in which he focuses on epistemology and on ideas about law in science and literature. Thiher goes on to describe the subsequent development of modernist fiction. He proposes that, after Joyce, thought experiments dominated the relations between science and later modernist fiction, as exemplified by Woolf, Faulkner, and Borges. In conclusion Thiher addresses the ongoing development of these experiments in postmodern fiction and discusses the fortunes of positivism in postmodern fiction. Written in a clear and accessible style, Fiction Refracts Science will be of interest to specialists in literary modernism, science studies, and the history of science, as well as to scientists themselves.

Excerpt

My purpose in this book is to study the way modernist literature has dealt with modern science. Neither "modernist" nor "modern" is meant in a polemical way. I am using these terms in the sense they have in most histories of literature or science. If there is a controversial side to this book, it may lie in my presupposition that science and literature share a cultural matrix setting forth presuppositions, axioms, and constraints for all endeavors to make sense of the world. This is not a structuralist or poststructuralist assumption, for I do not identify culture with language, nor do I assume that "reality" is determined by language. From my point of view, reality is usually a metaphysical notion, often used as a premise for dubious arguments. the idea of a cultural matrix is, instead, an empirical notion, for we encounter it whenever we draw upon the overlapping groups of assumptions that members of a given community use to understand the world. However, the fact that these assumptions can be articulated in various languages does not logically entail that they must be identical to language or that they are in some sense logically dependent upon any given language, be it verbal, mathematical, iconic, or whatever semiotic form one can think of.

Any given cultural matrix has developed in time and in this restricted sense is historical in origin. More interesting perhaps, at least in the West, each cultural matrix is also subject to constant modification. These modifications are the subject matter of intellectual and cultural history. To understand this history is to understand the process through which a community has come to believe what it believes today, or to know what it takes to be knowledge. Intellectual history is thus in part a self-reflexive enterprise, fraught with all the logical difficulties attendant upon any self-reflexive mode of thought.

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